Toulouse-Lautrec: painting prostitution as it was

Literary Representations
Lorettes and society

Lower Class Prostitutes and the Law
Representations in Les Miserables
Realities of Authority in Paris
Brothels and Streetwalkers

The Privileged Class: Courtesans

Defining the courtesan
Visual representations
Courtesans in reality





Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), was a French postimpressionist painter, lithographer, and illustrator, who documented the bohemian nightlife of late-19th-century Paris. Toulouse-Lautrec is well known for his paintings of prostitutes and courtesans. During the 19th-century it was very difficult to not have a stand on women of ill repute. Almost every man was guilty of using their services at one time or another but that did not always mean that when faced with a question of the profession they would not pick it apart and slander the women. Lautrec is perhaps one exaplme of a man who was able to stay in the penumbra of the argument and simply put forth, in his paintings, what was there.


  • Lautrec frequented the Moulin Rouge and other cabarets of the Montmartre district of Paris (for more about districts of paris click here) . He also frequented the theater, the circus, Parisian brothels and often dance halls along with prostitutes, who mingled among the clientele in search of business. The dance halls commissioned Lautrec to create advertising posters (seen below). After its opening, the Moulin Rouge dance hall reserved a table for Lautrec every night, and displayed his paintings. Prostitutes befriended, supported, and modeled for the unesthetically pleasing, crippled man who would one day be remembered as one of the great artists of 19th-century France.

8.Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Moulin Rouge - La Goulue, 1891

8.rollover image: Henri de Toulous-Lautrec, Jane Avril, 1893 (for source of both pictures click here)

In the above poster, Lautrec shows one of the stars of the Moulin Rouge, La Goulue as she performs the scandalous chahut (can can) with her loose-limbed partner Valentin Le Désossé (the boneless).

In the rollover image, Lautrec portrays the debut of Jane Avril at the Jardin de Paris, a café-concert on the Champs-Elysées. Jane Avril began her career as a dancer at the Moulin-Rouge in 1889, developing a relatively refined style that contrasted with the vulgar exhibitionism of La Goulue.


  • As a purchaser of their services, Toulouse-Lautrec also had more direct dealings with prostitutes. Indeed, sometimes he would pack up and move into a brothel for days or months on end. He enjoyed shocking acquaintances by giving the address of a brothel as his place of residence. Prostitutes and madams accepted Lautrec as a fellow outcast, and permitted him to wander about, sketching and painting freely on his own initiative or on commission to the brothels. He grew close to his prostitute models; he played games with them, brought them presents, and accompanied them to his studio, restaurants, circuses, or theaters during their time off.


  • He neither vilified nor glamorized these women, but presented an objective, almost documentary view of the everyday life they shared with him.


Unlike Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec did not stand on either side of the divide in his depiction's of courtesans and prostitutes. He saw them as people and regardless of whether he thought them to be women of ill repute or paragons of virtue fallen upon hard times, he painted them as they were. Not always in a bright light and not always in darkness.

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